Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008's Top 20 Singles

20) Black Kids - “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You” (AG/Columbia)
I’m not sure why Black Kids singer-guitarist Reggie Youngblood starts this song with the words, “You are the girl that I’ve been dreaming of/Ever since I was a little girl.” Um, what? By the time keyboardists Dawn Watley and Ali Youngblood start their cheerleader-like vocals on “Dance! Dance! Dance!” on the chorus, you’ll have forgotten about the sexual ambiguity and feel like having someone teach you to dance.

19) Santogold - “L.E.S. Artistes” (Downtown)
This collective that revolves around singer Santi White recently had to shorten their name to Santi for legal reasons. Hopefully the name change won’t impact their ability to make catchy songs that that fuse punk, reggae and indie rock with electronic music. I couldn’t tell you if the lyrics of “L.E.S. Artistes” are an accurate description of the new generation of people who inhabit that neighborhood, not having been a regular on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for more than a decade. But I guess my subconscious knows the answer, since I first wrote “inhibit that neighborhood” and missed that mistake the first three times I edited this damn thing. Oh my brain, does your hatred of scumbags in lower Manhattan know no bounds?

18) What Made Milwaukee Famous - “Sultan” (Barsuk)
I wish I knew why this slice of addictive power-pop was called “Sultan.” It doesn’t seem to be about Babe Ruth (“The Sultan of Swat”) or Hassanal Bolkiah (“The Sultan of Brunei”). I do know that it stayed in my head for a couple of days after I saw them play the Austin City Limits Festival and that “If you don’t cut your losses before you get lost/They're never going to leave you alone” is one helluva line for a chorus.

17) Cold War Kids - “Something is Not Right With Me” (Downtown)
It’s a shame that Cold War Kids second full-length Loyalty to Loyalty turned out to be such a letdown. When I heard this first single I was definitely anticipating a strong disc. Instead we got an album where the band tries to rock too hard and seemingly forgets how to come up with a melody. Only “Something is Not Right With Me” strikes the right balance, with Nathan Willett's crazy-sounding vocals matching up perfectly with the paranoid narrator of the song.

16) Estelle featuring Kanye West - “American Boy” (Atlantic)
For the first time in say, oh, eight years, I feel proud to be American. And I credit it all to U.K. singer Estelle and this song. Okay, maybe she doesn’t deserve all the credit. It did take until after our Presidential election for this bouncy and oh so hummable song to click in my mind. I heard it all throughout the summer but thought it was the last single from West’s Graduation, an album that didn’t really hold up for me after repeated listens. Then the first Saturday after the election I heard “American Boy” cranked in the NHL store in midtown Manhattan. Standing there next to a batch of Sidney Crosby jerseys the lines “I just met this 5 foot 7 guy who’s just my type/Like the way he speak here, his confidence is peaking” and “Take me to your hood/I neva been to Brooklyn and I'd like to see what's good” hooked me. She’s a very attractive singer (who also has an English accent, which always slays me) proclaiming she likes guys from the good ol’ U S of A. How could you not like this song? If we’re lucky, perhaps Estelle will lead a cultural revolution around the globe that makes us American boys seem just slightly less evil than we look right now to the rest of the planet.

15) Kings of Leon - “Sex on Fire” (RCA)
I can’t believe it took until my 18th listen (that is a rough estimate) to this song for me to understand these lyrics. I mean, with words like “Soft lips are open/knuckles are pale/feels like you’re dying” and a chorus of “Your sex is on fire/consumed with what’s to transpire,” how dumb could I be? It’s plain as day what’s going on here—the subject of the song is talking about passing a kidney stone.

Wait, why are you laughing? Oh. Oh. Um, yeah. Forget that kidney stone thing.

14) Morrissey - “That’s How People Grow Up” (Decca/Universal)
Apparently for the former Smiths singer, growing up includes a big ol’ cowbell being played for three minutes straight and wasting time looking for love. And holy crap, I think I agree with him. “That’s How People Grow Up” was one of the two new tracks on Moz’s Greatest Hits: Deluxe Edition and it's the rare new song on a best of that stands up with all of the previously released material. I haven't liked a Morrissey song this much since “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get.” It’s wickedly catchy. And the following may just be the best line I’ve heard this year: “I was driving my car/I crashed and broke my spine/So yes there are things worse in life than/Never being someone's sweetie.” Brilliant, just brilliant.

13) She and Him - “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” (Merge)
She is actress Zooey Deschanel, Him is singer-songwriter M. Ward. The two met on a movie set, discovered they enjoyed some of the same types of music and ended up working on one of the most surprising releases of this year. This isn’t some vanity project like those from Scarlett Johansson, Keanu Reeves or that old guy from The Sopranos. Throughout She and Him’s debut disc Volume One Deschanel proves herself as very capable songwriter and as a fine singer. “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here” is a charming tune that exists in the sweet spot where ’60s pop meets country and up-tempo folk. And Deschanel’s highly overdubbed a capella breakdown towards the end of the song sucks me in every time. I wonder if Deschanel will go back to acting full time? I’d be comfortable letting her stay on music side of her career for a long time. (And with the news just before press time that she’s engaged to Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard, I’m sure she’ll continue her path in music.)

12) The Delta Spirit - “Trashcan” (Rounder)
Someone in The Delta Spirit actually plays the lid of a trashcan throughout this song. That is just too fucking cool. Who wouldn’t want to be in a band and spend three and half minutes banging the crap out of a metal trashcan lid? Sign me up for that right now. And the rest of the song, which reminds me a bit of Cold War Kids, is pretty good too. Seriously, a trashcan lid. Awesome.

11) The Raconteurs - “Old Enough” (Third Man/WB)
Brendan Benson really shines on this second single from The Raconteurs’ Consolers of the Lonely. This mash up of country (hear that fiddle go!) and 70s organ-driven pop features Benson doing some great harmony and lead vocals that were a bit in short supply from him on the band’s debut. And “You're too young to have it figured out/You think you know what you're talking about/You think it will all work itself out/But we'll see” is a great stanza that anyone 40 and over can quote to anyone 29 and younger. Damn kids. Get off my lawn.

10) Ingrid Michaelson - “Be Ok” (Cabin 24 Records/RED)
It’s not often I really connect with someone I interview. Ingrid Michaelson is one of the very few exceptions. I spoke with in the fall of 2007 when her song “The Way I Am” was in every Old Navy commercial and within minutes we were cracking each other up like old friends. I spoke to her this past summer about her upcoming EP called Be Ok, and within a minute we were bantering like a longtime morning drive show. I don’t usually dig this kind of music, but knowing that there’s such a cool person behind it somehow removes that barrier. (Um, and she’s incredibly cute and a native New Yorker as well, which certainly doesn’t hurt her cause.) “Be Ok” is wickedly catchy and is done in under 2:30, which plants it right in my wheelhouse. And part of the proceeds will go to the Stand Up 2 Cancer. So basically you'd have to be an asshole not to dig this song. Wait, I am an asshole. Well there’s a conundrum…

9) Kathleen Edwards - “The Cheapest Key” (Zoe/Rounder)
Kathleen Edwards has followed the path made by Lucinda Williams for country-rock female singer-songwriters. But I don’t think Williams has ever written an opening pair of lines as funny as these: “A is for all the times I bit my tongue/B is for bullshit and you fed me some.” “The Cheapest Key” takes the musical keys and breaks them down into a laundry list of slams against some dude with a guitar that picked the wrong woman to fuck with. It’s also got a very funny bridge where Edwards spits out the line “Don't write me off, here comes my softer side,” and then 3 seconds of a fanciful piano roll flies by and then she snarls, “And there it goes!” “The Cheapest Key” is easily the funniest “I’m pissed off” song of the year.

8) The Hold Steady - “Sequestered in Memphis” (Vagrant)
In July I went in for my second stint of jury duty in Brooklyn—and once again I got picked. In 2003 I served two weeks on a murder trial. Fortunately this year it was a civil case that got settled before we went into the courtroom. And each time I walked to the court building I found myself singing this Hold Steady song. It's another great slab of (I almost hate to write this phrase but I will) Springsteen-esque rock with frontman Craig Finn spinning the tale of a guy being questioned by the cops. It was the perfect antidote to being wrapped up in the clutches of our jurisprudence system. At least I don't have to go to jury duty for another eight years. By that point society might have broken down completely and vigilante justice will rule. Woo-hoo!

7) Joe Jackson - “Too Tough” (Rykodisc)
This second single from the Rain album is reminiscent of Jackson’s more mellow work on Night and Day and Body and Soul. Like those discs Jackson went guitarless once again, playing in a piano trio with his original rhythm section of bassist Graham Maby and drummer Dave Houghton. “Too Tough” features some gorgeous piano playing, especially when Jackson hits the chorus. And oh my gosh, it’s a somewhat bitter chorus. Who would have thought I would enjoy a line like this? “And if I try hard enough/to do or die/when we push and shove/I know that I will be too tough/Too tough to fall in love/With you.” After transcribing that line I realized that “Too Tough” might be my favorite Joe Jackson song in at least 17 years...and that the last Jackson song I liked this much (“Stranger Than Fiction”) was released when I graduated college. Sigh.

6) Carrie Underwood - “All American Girl” (19 Recordings/RCA)
And now the most shocking entry anywhere on this year’s list. Yes, an American Idol winner who went on to a country career released a song I liked a whole lot. Let’s file this one under “Reasons I Have CMT and GAC Among My Programmed Favorites on My Remote.” The video features Underwood (who, um, is kind of an attractive 25 year old) in a parade of outfits you’d find all-American girls in: cheerleader, swimmer, waitress, nurse, stewardess, army ranger, police officer, firewoman and beauty queen. Yeah, I kind of felt like a pervert the first time I watched the entire video. Then I found myself actually humming the melody one day on the train home. That’s when I knew this song was more than just a pretty face (so to speak). Underwood and her co-writers Ashley Gorley and Kelley Lovelace came up with some damn fine hooks on this one. Just as the second chorus is about to end with “girl,” they skip it and head back to the beginning of the chorus, building up the tension in the next go around, where they proceeds to skip it again until they finally reach the end of the chorus on the third try. It’s almost a relief when they finally get to that resolving note. And it’s pure hit songwriting genius.

5) R.E.M. - “Supernatural Superserious” (WB)
This might not be the best song on Accelerate, but it was certainly the perfect song to reintroduce a revitalized R.E.M. to the world. There’s the chiming of Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker, a great (and at times wordless) backing vocal from Mike Mills and one great hook after another. It’s yet another entry in Michael Stipe’s line of lyrical pep-talks. It was the first time in a long while (since “What’s the Frequency Kenneth”) where I dug an R.E.M. single from the very first listen.

4) Mudcrutch - “Scare Easy” (WB)
This is the best Tom Petty original song in many years—and the members of the Heartbreakers not in Mudcrutch must be pissed they didn’t get a chance to record it. Mudcrutch is the band that Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench were in before the Heartbreakers were born. I’m pretty sure this country-rock/psychedelic sound wouldn’t have brought them a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career like the Heartbreakers. However, Petty and company got to do something most of us who will never have that opportunity to do—get back together with some old friends and see if that magic from long ago was still there. And it’s obvious the revisiting his roots inspired Petty, as “Scare Easy” is catchy as hell, it has a great “let’s get this down on tape live here in our rehearsal space” sound, Mike Campbell plays the hell out of the solo and the chorus is one of Petty’s strongest in age. He sounds absolutely recharged, which I’m grateful for after seeing some average Heartbreakers performances over the past two tours. I love how Petty spits out this chorus: “I don’t scare easy/I don’t fall apart/When I’m under the gun/You can break my heart/And I ain’t gonna run.” I hope this Mudcrutch reunion isn’t just a one shot deal.

3) Bob Mould - “The Silence Between Us” (Granary Music/Anti)
The best work of Bob Mould’s post-Hüsker Dü career has seen him explore the fraying edges of relationships. “The Silence Between Us” is a surprising exception to that rule. This time Mould is describing an event in a relationship that seems solid—or will at least be solid when his partner relaxes and realizes how good they have it. A simple trip to the woods (“There were trails of fallen trees/Deciduous and weeding marsh/The lowland birds and crickets roared/The final sound of fall”) has never sounded this hooky before, as Mould revisits the power-pop that made Sugar such a joy for the first time in more than a decade.

2) Nada Surf - “Whose Authority” (Barsuk)
Damn, this song is so fucking catchy. I’ve always thought “Whose Authority” was kind of odd because there are two lengthy verses before the chorus kicks in. Then one day while I was walking to a gig the chorus just hit me. I had to start pumping my fist and soundlessly mouth these words: “On whose authority/I have none over me/on whose authority/there's none that I can see/on whose authority/I have none over me/on whose authority/nothing speaks to me/on whose authority/I have none over me” It's hard to describe just how anthemic it is—or even what frontman Matthew Caws is singing about. I do know that the video has the older brother from The Adventures of Pete & Pete riding his bike around New York, and there’s a point at about 1:57 in where he just throws his hands in the air as the chorus is going...and it’s absolutely perfect. This song brings me that moment of exhilaration on every listen. I can't explain why, I can only revel in it.

1) Okkervill River - “Lost Coastlines” (Jagjaguwar)
Okkervill River frontman Will Sheff is by far the best lyricist in rock today (might have been that schooling at Macalester in St. Paul, I'm not sure). Each one of his songs is a compelling, funny, sometimes heartbreaking, yet always tautly constructed short story. "Lost Coastlines" is ostensibly about a crew departing on a ship, yet it's a great metaphor for a band leaving on what looks to be a hard slog of a tour. (“Leaving behind/All the faces that I might replace if I tried/on that long ride/Looking deep inside/but I don't want to look so deep inside yet.”) And departed keyboardist-vocalist Jonathan Meiburg makes a great counterpoint to Sheff's distinctive off-kilter delivery with a smooth baritone that takes two verses. A great leadoff track to a fantastic album.

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